Home Studio Recordist
Richard Niles searching for the source of his inspiration.
Calling all home recordists... Here's a golden opportunity to pass on those brilliant tricks you've discovered to turn your cassette deck into a fully-blown 48 track recorder!
Well, not quite... but these columns are devoted to what you, the reader, have to say about your own method of recording, your equipment or maybe your experiences in a pro studio. So write and tell us about these or any other aspect of your recording and you may well find yourself occupying these pages.
This month we take a look at a home recordist and guitarist who, having worked with some highly respected musicians is now about to record his own solo album.
Richard Niles is an American composer/arranger/producer who has been living and working in the UK since 1975. He studied and graduated from the Berkley college of music in Boston, respected throughout the world for its approach to the teaching of contemporary music. While there, he worked with guitarist Pat Metheny and vibraphone player Gary Burton. Richard has since worked in many top studios in this country and America with such diverse artists as Cat Stevens, David Essex, Leo Sayer, Sheena Easton, Trevor Horn, Morissey Mullen, Petula Clark and Casiopea. However in this day and age of hi-tech studios where time is a very expensive thing to waste, it pays to know what you are going to do before you go into a studio, so Richard is a great believer in working out all his songs, arrangements and so forth beforehand.
This is where home recording plays an important part in determining the end result. 'I first started recording my own demos on a Teac 144 Portastudio, using a combination of Roland Drumatix, Bassline, guitar and Korg Polysix. Some of the demos ended up as finished masters, things for radio jingles mainly.
'But working with only four tracks as opposed to twenty can be very restricting, so in January of last year I bought the Fostex A8 recorder, a 350 mixer and some anciliary equipment needed to make good quality home demos.
'I use the 8-track to work on demos as well as finished masters. I worked on one song whereby I put a sync track for my Drumulator on tape so that I could trigger the Drumulator from the sync track without committing the drums to tape. I put keyboards onto the remaining tracks and took the A8 and the Drumulator into a professional studio and mixed the live sounds of the Drumulator and the recorded tracks on to two tracks. The end result was very good, it would be difficult to tell the difference between the Fostex and a conventionally recorded 16-track master.'
Richard believes you don't have to use all eight tracks just because they are there. 'It's better to have a few tracks doing something interesting, than having all eight VU meters moving at the beginning of the track and not stopping till the track ends.
'Before I start a track I've already written a complete arrangement of the music I intend to record, and planned my track sheet. With 8-track it pays to think before you record.'
As mentioned earlier Richard has the Drumulator which he uses on all his tracks. 'I've recently acquired different sound chips such as the heavy metal and electronic drums, as well as the percussion chips. I like to experiment with different combinations. For instance, the last track I recorded I combined the heavy metal snare with the electronic snare and this resulted in a big snare sound with a Simmons-type overtone. I always record the drums in stereo as it's nice to pan the individual outputs of the Drumulator to create the same kind of stereo picture you get from recording real drums.'
Richard is a great believer in hiring in equipment if he thinks it will benefit the track. 'When recording drums I usually hire in a Drawmer dual noise gate. I use the gates in conjunction with my Great British Spring reverb. The G.B.S. is stereo and I put both channels of the reverb through both channels of the noise gate and set one of the gates on a short release time, and the other on a longer release time for that explosive snare sound.
'If a big drum sound is not needed I use the gates to tighten up the bass and snare. When I've got the sound I want I record drums and any effects I want. I always record any effects to tape, only having one reverb can be restricting.
As well the G.B.S. Richard has a comprehensive list of inexpensive outboard equipment. 'For compression I use the Accessit sound vice compressor to get a full bass guitar sound and it's also useful for vocals. I also have an old Allen & Heath mini-limiter which I use to get a hard attack sound.'
For EQ Richard has an Accessit parametric. The nice feature about the Accessit unit is that you can use it as either two independent channels or come out of one channel and into the other. This enables you to have a two band EQ unit, having either one band set on low-mid range and the other set on mid-high range, or using both channels the same frequency range - this allows you to get a very precise EQ setting.
'As far as delay is concerned I have an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man and the Boss DD2 delay pedal. I like using both of the delays on differing delay setting, one between 20ms-100ms to simulate a room ambience and another long delay with repeats, with the outputs panned left and right (giving depth to an otherwise acoustically dead sound). Also using delay in conjunction with reverb gives a lot of space to a sound.'
Richard has a large selection of Boss effects, although guitar is his main instrument he finds they are good for other instruments as well. 'The Boss chorus adds depth to both keyboards and guitars.' Linking all these effects together is the Roland PJ890, which is an instrument in itself. 'I have all the mixer channel send and returns, tape machine inputs and outputs and all the effects input and output routed via the patchbay. With the parallel outputs of the patchbay it's very easy to route one signal to more than one effect.
'I have a Roger Giffen Strat and an Ovation Anniversary. The Ovation is the stereo model; each string is panned alternately between left and right. Usually I D.I. the guitar but if I need an overdriven rock sound I put the Strat through a Sessionette 75, which is also good for lead guitar sounds. When it comes to recording vocals, Richard's wife Tessa, who is a singer by trade, (whose credits include backing vocals on ABC's Lexicon of Love album, the Police 1983 tour and Tina Turner's 'What's love got to do with it') usually obliges the odd vocal or two. 'For recording vocals I use a Shure Unisphere 1, or if it's for anything important I'll hire in a Neumann U87 condenser mic.' Richard believes backing vocals to be one of the best ways of fattening up a track. The trick is to do the backing vocals as early as possible - preferably after the drums, bass and a guide keyboard are recorded. This leaves enough tracks to do the harmonies and then bounce onto one track. I prefer to bounce tracks as little as possible in order to preserve clarity.'
Richards latest acquisition is a Yamaha DX7 synth and the new UMI1B, which, linked with the BBC micro-computer is a versatile MIDI-based sequencer. 'With the UMI I can record a sync track onto the A8 and if at any time I wish to drop in a complex sequence I can. Nor do I have to commit the keyboard parts to tape; this allows me to mix the DX7 straight onto 2-track if I've run out of tracks.'
Where do you get most of your recording ideas and technique from? 'When working in a 24-track studio, it's possible to pick up ideas from just watching the engineer, especially if he is a genius like Steve Taylor, who I try to work with as often as possible. It helps to work with an engineer who knows what type of sound you want. I observe the way he will EQ each instrument and the way the signal is routed through various effects before it finally gets to the tape machine input. Basically there isn't much difference between 8-track home recording and recording in a professional studio (apart from about a million pounds). So it's possible to pick up any ideas you observe in a 24-track studio and put them into practice at home.'
'When I mix a track I have a clear idea of how I want the end result to sound before I start. Mixing on 8-track can be more difficult than mixing with 24-track because on 24-track you have a greater element of control, especially with the likes of computer assisted mix-downs and so on. Although I always record my effects to tape, there is still the element of 'perspective' to consider, and the addition of other effects courtesy of the wonderful PJ890. I have an old Revox A77 that I use for mixing, and in most cases I'll hire a Drawmer compressor/limiter and patch it between the mixer and the 2-track. Just few dBs compression gives the mix an overall air of presence and punch, and articulates the vocal without losing the drums.
'For monitoring I use Auratones, and for mixing a pair of JBL L19s that I use for hi-fi reference. Both pairs of speakers are powered by a Technics hi-fi amp. I find that if the mix sounds good on Auratones it'll sound good on anything.'
What have you been working on recently? 'I've just finished some music for a film which was demoed on the 8-track and mastered on the B16. At the end of January I'll be producing the next Hubbards Cubbard album on the Coda label and after that I'll be recording my solo album entitled 'Niles Smiles.'
What kind of music will feature on the album? 'It'll be lyrical contemporary instrumental music. I want to steer away from using conventional drums or machines and use percussion as the main part of the rhythm. At the moment I'm programming the keyboard parts to some of the songs, so when it comes to going into the studio it will just be a case of concentrating on the sounds, rather than spending time on worrying about the playing. To quote Mitch Dalton (studio guitar superstar) 'Time is money and money is everything.' So UMI and the 8-track mean everything to me.'
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